Writers and Silly Media Biases: Stories are Flexible

This sto­ry is a movie. That oth­er sto­ry needs to be a nov­el.”

One of my pet peeves is the com­mon assump­tion among writ­ers that par­tic­u­lar types of sto­ries are best suit­ed to a sin­gle medi­um. This assump­tion belies either a lack of skill or a lack of under­stand­ing and appre­ci­a­tion for var­i­ous media.

Cinderella can be a pic­ture book, a nov­el, a short sto­ry, an ani­mat­ed short, a full-length fea­ture, a musi­cal, a play…. The pos­si­bil­i­ties for telling any sto­ry are lim­it­ed only by the writer’s knowl­edge of a par­tic­u­lar form and audi­ence expec­ta­tions. It is pos­si­ble to tell the sto­ry of Cinderella with­out words. In fact, silent films, ani­ma­tions, and bal­lets exist with­out dia­logue and yet audi­ences under­stand the sto­ry being told.

The basic sto­ry of Cinderella is well known in our cul­ture. A young woman is raised by her self­ish step­moth­er along­side two equal­ly nar­cis­sis­tic sis­ters. A grand ball is announced, dur­ing which the Prince is expect­ed to find a suit­able wife from the nobil­i­ty. The mag­ic of a fairy god­moth­er trans­forms Cinderella from a house­hold ser­vant into a beau­ti­ful lady, com­plete with fine glass slip­pers. For the rest of the sto­ry, I encour­age you to read, watch, and lis­ten to as many vari­a­tions as pos­si­ble.

A short sto­ry of Cinderella might not explain how the step­moth­er came to mary Cinderella’s father. A full-length nov­el or motion pic­ture might explore the com­plex back sto­ry. A bal­let would rely on the music and motion to con­vey thoughts, emo­tions, and the gen­er­al plot. The orig­i­nal fairy­tale fea­tures some star­tling­ly grotesque imagery, which con­tem­po­rary children’s books and ani­mat­ed fea­tures have removed.

My point is that a well-known fairy­tale such as Cinderella can be adapt­ed to any media by a tal­ent­ed writer. However, not every writer is a mas­ter of all forms and gen­res. I cer­tain­ly could not score an opera or bal­let based on Cinderella. Nor could I illus­trate a word free pic­ture book of the sto­ry. My lim­i­ta­tions as a writer are not the lim­i­ta­tions of the sto­ry.

Most ear­ly movies were adap­ta­tions of famous plays. Yet, I fre­quent­ly hear screen­writ­ers claim that a sto­ry is a “good play, bad movie.” Instead, a screen­writer should be con­sid­er­ing how to tell the sto­ry max­i­miz­ing the strengths of cin­e­ma.

A col­league post­ed the fol­low­ing to Facebook:

  • If your pro­tag­o­nist is a THINKER you have a BOOK.
  • If your pro­tag­o­nist is a TALKER you have a PLAY.
  • If your pro­tag­o­nist is a DOER you have a MOVIE.

The prob­lem with the pre­ced­ing sim­ple check­list is that a main char­ac­ter can be adapt­ed to doing, talk­ing, or think­ing based on the medi­um des­ti­na­tion for the sto­ry. Sometimes, you must add a char­ac­ter or oth­er device to allow thoughts to become dia­logue. Sometimes, voiceover works well in a film and can reveal thoughts. Great direc­tors can reveal thoughts with quick cuts and sug­ges­tive images. Never lim­it your­self by assert­ing any char­ac­ter is only one aspect of the above list.

We are all thinkers, talk­ers, and doers. Choosing which to empha­size is a choice made based on the form and genre select­ed by or for the sto­ry­teller.

As an aside, I also dis­like the empha­sis on the pro­tag­o­nist in the above list. Main char­ac­ters may or may not be “pro­tag­o­nists” in the tra­di­tion­al sense of good ver­sus evil. Equally impor­tant, oppos­ing char­ac­ters (antag­o­nist, oppo­si­tion, impact, muse, et al) can be adapt­ed to any form and genre. Evil thoughts can be expressed in dia­logue, or sug­gest­ed through action, lim­it­ed only by the skill of the writer.

When some­one states that a movie was not as good as the book this can reflect either a bad movie or unusu­al expec­ta­tions. The audi­ences for full-length nov­els might not be the same as the audi­ences for two-hour movies. However, it seems more like­ly that the adap­ta­tion is to blame for audi­ence dis­sat­is­fac­tion. Nobody would try to com­pare the short sto­ry of Cinderella to a full-length fea­ture film. Each medi­um must stand apart even when telling the same sto­ry.

Lose your media bias­es. Stories them­selves are flex­i­ble, ready to be told in any medi­um by a tal­ent­ed sto­ry­teller, some­one aware of that medium’s strengths and weak­ness­es. If you can­not see a sto­ry in a par­tic­u­lar medi­um, maybe you aren’t the right choice for writ­ing that adap­ta­tion. That is not an insult or a crit­i­cism. As I men­tion above, I’m not the best choice for any num­ber of forms and gen­res. Know your strengths and tell the sto­ries you want to tell in the medi­um or media you pre­fer.

Just don’t tell anoth­er writer that his or her sto­ry must be told in a par­tic­u­lar medi­um, accord­ing to your bias­es.

Photo by Internet Archive Book Images

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Author: C. Scott Wyatt